June 5, 2023
This is an oft-repeated question I have faced over the last 3 months from the time we launched VOLTRAN. What exactly is VOLTRAN? How are we different from other players, TATA is already making big moves in EV charging, how can you compete with them, what is your differentiation strategy, so on so forth. This article is to address those many questions we faced and I shall parallelly sprinkle few entrepreneurial lessons I learnt along the way.
Around 4 months back, we decided to build our own product at THINK3D and as EV is an emerging field, we chose to focus on this space. To gain deeper understanding on this space, we took an EV out and drove it across cities, highways. In the process, we learnt how broken the charging infrastructure is in India. There was so much friction in charging an EV that we ourselves got so vexed with the overall EV experience. As we dug deeper into it, we realized that the solution to this problem is pretty simple. All it requires is bit of common sense but somehow nobody is implementing it. That’s when we realized there is an opportunity for us. We thus expanded the scope and got into EV charging business. Below I shall be listing out the problems and the solutions we figured out for the problems.
Industry 4.0 (For what?): Most EV chargers are designed & manufactured for a complete DIY operation. i.e. Customer plugs in the charger, scans the QR code, does payment and initiate charge. No human assistance required. This looks great on paper. This is highly scalable, you can just put chargers wherever you want, payment comes directly to your account, what not, except that in reality it isn’t how it is going to be, more so in India because of creaky infrastructure. Having worked in manufacturing industry for long, we knew the limitations of industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 can assist humans in improving productivity but can’t replace humans on shop floor. We are still far off from lights off shop floor. Machines have lots of moving parts and thus undergo frequent repairs that can’t be handled through a bunch of sensor and software code. Same is the case with EV chargers. For smooth charging experience, proper network connection should be in place all the time, no voltage fluctuations should happen, power cuts shouldn’t be there and EV users should follow a standard SOP. None of these hold true in real. And a simple solution to this is having a person manage the charger & do the charging. No amount of sensors / automation replace human brain and his decision making skills. So, we stripped off all these add-ons, built HMI (Human Machine Interface) to be affixed to charger and made our hub a manned one. The manned operation made whole lot of difference to customer experience.
Lesson: What looks good on paper needn’t be the right solution in real
Misaligned Interests: Most charge point operators (CPOs) installed these chargers at food courts on highways. The idea behind this is very simple – food courts already have infrastructure in place that can be used (No need to set up entire infrastructure); EV travelers anyway have to wait for food on highway, they can charge vehicle while having food; Having EV chargers shall bring in additional footfalls to food courts. Again the idea looks beautiful on paper. It is highly scalable. CPOs can continue to install chargers without worrying about setting up basic infrastructure, food courts shall get additional footfalls & revenue. But not so in real. Most food courts and CPOs are ending up in conflicts for a simple reason – misaligned interests. It all starts with who is adding more value to the partnership. Food courts think CPOs need them to set up chargers as food courts are already popular and CPOs think food courts need them as they provide footfalls. When food courts find out that the monthly income isn’t good, they start renegotiating the contract terms. On top of that, food court parking in-charge (being an employee) doesn’t want to take additional burden of ensuring EV space is vacant, he just lets regular cars to be parked in EV zone. In case of power cuts, EV charger gets tripped, so a person should manually switch it on and for something as simple as this, food court person thinks it isn’t his responsibility and CPO employees sit in the city and can’t come all over just to switch on the machine. Also, whenever there is an event in the food court, the food court owner cuts off power to charging station to give power to the event. There are many such challenges leading to misaligned priorities.
Lesson: When entering into partnership always ensure interests are aligned. In this case, make food court owner of the EV charging business and CPO takes smaller cut.
Multiple Chargers: CPOs install one charger per food court / location. Till date, I never understood the logic behind this. Instead of having 2 chargers in two different locations within 10 km distances, why not have 2 chargers at a single location. Having 1 per location leads to lot of issues – if the charger is occupied, the new car should wait till the existing one is charged and then put his car for charge. If the charger is down, he would be in a dilemma to go back or go forward. The easiest solution to this is having multiple chargers at a single location. It is a simple serial vs parallel system concept. In parallel system wait times decreases exponentially. Also if one charger is down, other charger can be used till this charger is repaired.
Lesson: This is just a simple common sense thing. I still don’t understand why people go about setting one charger per location.
Cafeteria: The prevailing thought was people who opt for EV charging would have food during that time. Our experience shows it is only partly true. Even when they are charging the car in food court, they feel outsiders in the food court. Either they have to order food against their wish or wait outside. Food court folks don’t like people coming in and sitting idle or just ordering coffee and waiting for an hour. All in all, EV travelers don’t feel they belong there. This happens because food court and EV charging are two different entities. In our case, cafeteria and EV charging belong to same entity, so customers feel they own the space. They can relax in the lounge without worrying about some waiter coming and asking for food order.
Lesson: Some trends won’t be visible to naked eye. This particular insight I got when I saw EV customers loitering outside the food court while charging the vehicle. When I enquired the reason, I found that waiters keep loitering around if they go and sit inside making them feel uncomfortable.
Open 24/7: Most food courts close by 11:00 pm. Post 11:00 pm, footfalls for the food court are very less for them to switch on lights and have employees. Also there is a fear of theft too. So, opening food court in an expensive proposition. As food court is closed, so is the EV charger whereas ours is open 24/7. Basically a customer can plan his trip without worrying about time, charger availability and so on.
Lesson: Additional cost of having a resource or two in night shift is nothing in front of the customer comfort.
All in all, after the launch of VOLTRAN, EV travelers stopped planning their travel in advance on this route. We removed range anxiety, time anxiety, fear that machines don’t work from the customer mind. They just drive with a confidence that they can get car charged at VOLTRAN anytime of the day. This consistency of experience is what sets up apart from others.